Cultural Relativism

Cultural Relativism 2011 – DSK, Guinea, Introduction to Anthropology


When I first flagged the op-ed by anthropologist Mike McGovern, Before You Judge, Stand in Her Shoes, I also included comments from parenthropologist who wrote, “I fear that Mike McGovern’s point, in his op-ed, will be lost on too many Americans who feel that there are too many immigrants, legal and especially illegal, in ‘their’ country.” But it’s worse. In Don’t walk a mile in her shoes Robert Fulford uses McGovern’s article to attack anthropology and the idea of cultural relativism (thanks to anthropologyworks for the update).

Anthropology should stand firmly with McGovern. McGovern was not actually talking about cultural relativism but trying to reveal economic and political realities as well as historical and contemporary connections. Moreover, Fulford mangles anthropological thought, trying to tar anthropology with the abuse of an idea that has had much more currency in popular culture than within anthropology. These dueling articles allow us to assess the idea of cultural relativism in 2011, as we prepare for another round of Anthropology 101 courses that must inevitably address the issue.

McGovern was not doing cultural relativism

Fulford excoriates McGovern for “a coarsely applied version of cultural relativism, an idea that long ago lost its professional moorings and became a dead weight on serious thinking.” But at no point does McGovern use the word culture or cultural or relative or relativism. McGovern is instead

  1. providing economic context on Guinea, of “grinding poverty” in a mineral-rich country;
  2. detailing a political context of “state-sponsored violence”;
  3. portraying historical and contemporary interconnections to transnational mining corporations and consumer products; and
  4. outlining a flawed and arbitrary asylum and immigration system.

This is not, in a strict sense, cultural relativism. McGovern is not justifying lies based on a “culture of deception.” He is not claiming there were different “cultural conventions” for male-female interactions. McGovern is talking about power, history, and political economy. Fulford tells us we don’t need to know about such things. For Fulford, all that matters is that McGovern is an anthropologist, therefore he must be promoting the idea of cultural relativism.

McGovern is instead doing what Lila Abu-Lughod advocated:

Cultural relativism is certainly an improvement on ethnocentrism and the racism, cultural imperialism, and imperiousness that underlie it; the problem is that it is too late not to interfere. The forms of lives we find around the world are already products of long histories of interactions. (2002:786-787, in Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?)

Fulford would rather not hear it. In many ways, most people would rather have anthropologists tell cute stories about cultures and just-so stories of evolution rather than confront history and political economy (see blog-post Anthropology is Necessary).

Mangling anthropological history and cultural relativism

Fulford traces cultural relativism to Franz Boas, “the pioneer anthropologist. He argued that humans should be understood in terms of their own cultures. Taught by his students, and the students of his students, his views became the foundation of his profession.” Fulford then says Boas’s “sensible idea” has now saturated society and “a distorted version of Boas has become such a persistent background noise that it drowns out intelligence based on experience.”

Fulford is in some ways correct–distorted ideas of culture and cultural relativism have become extremely popular, and not in a good way. However, Fulford mangles the historical record. First, Boas was not really the popularizer here, but Ruth Benedict, whose still best-selling Patterns of Culture is the true source:

The recognition of cultural relativity carries with it its own values . . . It challenges customary opinions and causes those who have been bred to them acute discomfort. . . . As soon as the new opinion is embraced as customary belief, it will be another trusted bulwark of the good life. We shall arrive then at a more realistic social faith, accepting as grounds of hope and as new bases for tolerance the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence. (Patterns of Culture, 1934:278; see also Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture: From Culture to cultures)

But more importantly, this popularized version of cultural relativism was hardly the foundation of anthropology. By the time of the students-of-the-students of Boas–people like Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz, among others–anthropology had already turned toward questions of power, history, and political economy. Ideas of culture and cultural relativism have long ceased to be the exclusive domain of anthropology (for more, see blog-posts Doubling Down on Culture, Cosmo and Cosmopolitanism, and Culture Doesn’t Matter).

Cultural Relativism 2011 and Anthropology 101

In a very interesting piece, Cultural Relativism 2.0, Michael F. Brown takes stock of the situation:

Anthropology owns the franchise on cultural relativism, yet anthropologists as a group seem to approach the subject with a mixture of ambivalence and ennui. . . . Cultural relativism lives on in the undergraduate anthropology curriculum, of course, and those of us who teach introductory courses dutifully tackle it at least once a semester. This gives the subject something of the character of Valentine’s Day cards exchanged between spouses: a ritualized expression of commitment more convincingly communicated in other ways. As much as anything, we fear that our students will think us negligent should we fail to discuss it. (2008:363)

Brown’s article and the replies are worth reading, especially in preparation for the classroom. As Brown comments, “nowhere is relativism’s stock higher than among undergraduates” (2008:363). However, these dueling articles from McGovern and Fulford provide an opportunity to evaluate cultural relativism in 2011. Apparently anything an anthropologist says–including lessons on history and political economy–can be simply dismissed as cultural relativism. It’s a disturbing tale, of how anthropologists get attacked just for being anthropologists (see blog-post Anthropology Ambushed).

We will still have to discuss cultural relativism in Anthropology 101, but we need also to address the misuses and abuses, defending and re-branding anthropology. My take on cultural relativism for Introduction-to-Anthropology has been that cultural relativism is a method, a way of understanding, but not a philosophy. It is not a way of avoiding judgment, but may actually lead to better judgment.

As for walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, it can be a metaphor for anthropological fieldwork, or even more than a metaphor: putting on someone else’s shoes, or taking off your shoes, opens new ways of perceiving the world, as Tim Ingold explains in Culture on the ground: The world perceived through the feet (2011).

Finally, Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues a defense of cultural relativism is crucial to capturing and sustaining anthropology’s moral optimism:

This moral optimism permeates anthropology to different degrees. . . . It sustained anthropology’s defense of cultural relativism from Boas to Mead to Geertz’s magisterial lecture on “Anti Anti-relativism” (1984)–one of his best pieces precisely because he does not hide the stakes for anthropologists and for non-anthropologists. Yet anthropologists rarely make that optimism explicit. First, a false construction of objectivity–one that denies the observer the right to sensibilities, as if these sensibilities could disappear by fiat–pushes anthropologists into deep denial about that moral leap, in spite of the fact that this leap–and the generosity it implies toward humanity as a whole–may be the discipline’s greatest appeal for entering graduate students. Second, as these graduate students mature, they learn–incorrectly–to associate that moral optimism with social optimism, with teleology, or worse, with political naïveté. Moral optimism need not produce political naïveté. The two become close only when that optimism is shameful, when it refuses to present itself as a primal act of faith in humankind, however qualified by history and politics. (Global Transformations 2003:135)

Update July 2012: See The Headline I Wish We Were Reading: Anthropology Changed Everything for more on anthropology in the public sphere and the sad news on the passing of Michel-Rolph Trouillot.

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  • Thanks for highlighting this one, Jason. I need to go read the two articles now. Cultural relativism is definitely one of those concepts that gets twisted around and then used to dismiss pretty much anything that people do not want to hear. This happens a lot–especially in these kinds of cases, when disagreements are written off because they are supposedly rooted in poor argumentation. This kind of argumentation has been thrown at me before as well–dismissing claims as “relativism” when in fact I was talking about context, history, and political power. A convenient way of not listening, if you ask me. So it goes.

    As for Boas, people totally butcher what he was doing when he talked about the importance of looking at cultures on their own terms. Clearly, considering his long battle with issues like racism, he was certainly no advocate of extreme relativism. He certainly has boundaries, and did not subscribe to some naive view about human behavior. His idea about relativism was very much about methodology–a way of looking at the world and attempting to understand how or why it worked. But, I doubt Fulford took the time to actually look into much of what Boas actually said and did. Regardless, I’m pretty much preaching to the proverbial choir here.

    Anyway, that’s a concept that definitely gets trashed. It’s yet another example of an outdated, oversimplified version of our own discipline coming back to haunt us. The problem isn’t really the concept itself, but the fact that the general understanding of anthropology is stuck about 80 years in the past and doesn’t include much knowledge of the ensuing decades of anthropological work, theory, and ideas. Kinda like the what happens with “culture” (ie when people think of culture as some inherent set of behaviors along the lines of the Culture/Personality school). Funny how the general public, and writers like Fulford, tend to think of “anthropology” in terms that date to the 1920s, no? And whose fault is that? Ours, basically. Sounds like it’s definitely time for all us anthros to push for a much needed update of what anthropology is actually about *today*.

    Thanks again for posting this.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Ryan,

      Many thanks for the comment with a lot of valuable thoughts in there. It’s really difficult to get a sense of the anthropological disciplinary history, but seems like you have a good grasp.

      With regard to the 1920s comment, this may be true. However, it seems anthropology has a branding issue, not so much that we get stuck in a 1920s stereotype but that somehow we’ve acquired a different set of stereotypes that seem to be working against the anthropology brand. I’m not sure what to do about this, as just leting people know more about anthropology doesn’t necessarily solve the branding problems. It goes back to some issues raised at the very beginning of this blog, in the “soft launch” and the discussion of branding anthropology that rippled through the anthro blogosphere. Things haven’t changed much since then, and in some ways have probably deteriorated a bit more.

      Thanks again–and for all you are doing to highlight anthropologies.


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